September 5, 2022

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Innovation Leader

Are smartphones making us miserable? A Google study aims to find out

Google is teaming up with researchers to investigate how the mobile devices glued to our hands may be affecting our minds.

Conducted with researchers from the University of Oregon, the effort will be the second study to launch through the Google Health Studies app, the company’s nascent platform for conducting health research on its Android operating system. Like a similar program run by its competitor Apple, Google Health Studies aims to beef up the company’s health bona fides among consumers, researchers, and care providers.

In this case, Google has chosen to tackle a question that’s been the subject of great public concern as well as increasing academic study: Are smartphones really making us miserable? And if so, what kind of usage is most deleterious? Nicholas Allen, a professor of clinical psychology and lead researcher on the study, said he hoped such work could help influence product design by tech companies.

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“I think what would be a great outcome is if they looked at the impact on health and well-being as a kind of a fundamental kind of design criteria when you’re building a device,” said Allen, who is also the director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at University of Oregon. “So, for example, you ask the question, if someone uses this device as the manufacturer intends, what are going to be the likely impacts? And then how can we manage those?”

Unlike other research that relies on questionnaires to collect data on how people use their phones, this study will use what Allen called “objective” data about people’s device use. “People are generally pretty terrible at telling you — they don’t really know and they tend to underestimate how much they use their phone,” he said.

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The study will collect four weeks of data through the Google Health Studies app about adult participants’ smartphone use, like the number of daily device unlocks and how often they use different categories of apps, as well as real-world behavior, like sleep and activity, to help understand how different patterns correlate to participants’ self-reported “well-being.” Allen said the softer term was chosen because it evokes a broader range of experiences than terms like “mental health,” which tends to imply diagnosed conditions.

Google makes an overwhelming share of its revenue by selling targeted advertising, which is based in part on people’s tracked behavior. This could make potential participants hesitant to hand over even more data to a study associated with the search giant. Allen stressed that participant privacy is being built into the study design: Several steps are taken to summarize and aggregate data so that neither Google nor researchers see data about individuals. Google told STAT that it “will not use the data for advertising or promotion.”

The researchers hope to recruit up to 14,000 participants and the study will be open for a year. Participants with devices from Google-owned Fitbit will be able to contribute data from their wearables.

Google, which makes smartphone software used by billions of people, is an unparalleled partner for researchers like Allen hoping to recruit a broad population for studies. For its part, the company stands to gain reputationally by volunteering to help determine how its products may be contributing to negative mental health outcomes.

“It’s a really interesting example of a tech company trying to really understand what’s happening with their products and how they’re affecting people,” said Allen. “And actually, I give Google a lot of credit for being willing to look at this issue directly and to collect data on it with independent researchers.”

Are smartphones making us miserable? A Google-backed study aims to find out